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Pressure mounts on Iran over academic who faces death sentence

More than 100 Nobel laureates have written to the nation’s supreme leader demanding the release of medical researcher Ahmadreza Djalali.

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People protesting with photos of Ahmadreza Djalali nd and Hamid Babaei in Brussels

People in Brussels protest against research Ahmadreza Djalali’s imprisonment in Iran.Credit: Kevin Van den Panhuyzen/Zuma

A group of 121 Nobel laureates has signed an open letter to Iran’s supreme leader calling for the release of Ahmadreza Djalali, a disaster-medicine researcher sentenced to death in the nation.

The letter, dated 9 December, was distributed by the human-rights group Amnesty International to participants at this year’s Nobel-prize ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December. It follows a powerful call for the academic’s freedom made by tens of Nobel laureates in November last year.

Djalali, who worked at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was arrested during a visit to Iran in April 2016 on charges of “collaboration with a hostile government”. After a trial in one of the country’s revolutionary courts, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to death in October 2017.

Documents attributed to Djalali and written during his time in prison deny the charges. They say that he has never spied for any nation and that he believes he was arrested for refusing to spy for the Iranian intelligence service. The global scientific community has widely condemned the ruling and sentence.

“When I first heard about this case, I was greatly disturbed about the injustice being carried out,” says letter coordinator Richard Roberts, a biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1993.

The letter, to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls for Djalali’s case to be reassessed. “In light of the evidence of which we are aware, he deserves a fair trial, which should lead to his release,” it says.

The letter also says that Djalali is in poor health and that his “condition is declining rapidly”. Djalali was given medical leave from prison to have emergency hernia surgery on 18 November at a hospital, and returned to prison the following day, according to a source close to him who asked not be named for fear of retaliation. The source told Nature that Djalali is unwell and was visited in jail by an internal-medicine specialist on 10 December.

“We would urge you to attend to this case personally and make sure that Dr. Djalali is treated humanely and fairly and is released as soon as possible,” says the letter, which argues that the researcher is in desperate need of medical care.

Djalali has filed two unsuccessful appeals to some branches of Iran’s Supreme Court, but he can still appeal to other branches. His lawyer is pursuing these appeals, says the anonymous source.

Other Iranian scholars have faced similar charges in separate and unrelated cases. Among them are physicist Omid Kokabee, who was convicted on controversial espionage charges in 2012 and released after five years in prison, after becoming ill with cancer.

Mathematician Hamid Babaei was arrested in 2013 and is serving a six-year sentence.

And since early 2018, eight environmentalists have been in custody, arrested on suspicion of spying on military infrastructure with camera traps. The charges could be punished with a death sentence. In a letter published last month, also addressed to Khamenei, hundreds of scientists called for them to receive “fair and just” treatment.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07766-3
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